Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Rhetoric moment: The key to writing a good essay

Think of yourself not as a student or journalist, but as a lawyer

One key feature distinguishes the essay from other forms of writing: It must make a point. This point doesn’t have to be specifically stated, but it must always be there; there must always be an underlying “moral of the story” that gives meaning to the essay. In English composition, this underlying point is known as the thesis.

First, there’s figuring out exactly what point you want to make. It’s OK if you’re not exactly sure when you begin writing your essay. You may discover your true thesis somewhere along the line as you are writing. You may not even have a vague idea of your thesis at first, and it may be that through your writing you eventually arrive at a thesis.

Or you may start with a clear idea of what you want to prove, and that’s OK, too. Some people write better with the road map that a thesis provides. If you’re that sort of person, you might want to write out your thesis on a yellow sticky note and stick it to the frame of your computer monitor as you write, so you can keep on track.

Here are some characteristics of the thesis:

· It is a complete sentence. It contains a subject and a complete verb, and it can stand alone. “Pickup trucks” is not a thesis, since it’s not a complete sentence – it’s just a topic. On the other hand, “Pickup trucks are not just for cowboys any more” is a thesis, since it’s a complete sentence and it also meets the other criteria to be a thesis.

· It expresses an opinion, not a fact. If, on a clear day, I look out the window and say, “The sky is blue,” that is something that is observable and verifiable, and that is not subject to contradiction, except possibly by my teenage son, whose duty it is to contradict everything I say. Thus, “the sky is blue” is not a legitimate thesis.

· Not only does it express an opinion; it expresses an opinion that is debatable, that will not be automatically agreed with by just about everyone. I could say “Child abuse is bad,” and that would indeed be an opinion, since it involves a value judgment. But I’m not likely to find many people who would disagree with me. To be a good thesis, it has to be something about which there is disagreement. If, instead, I were to say, “Because child abuse is bad, parents who abuse their children should be sterilized,” then I would have a thesis, because I would have something that a lot of people would argue about.

· It can’t be a question. It must be a statement. However, if you have a question, the answer to it might be a good thesis. Thus, “Is democracy the best form of government?” is not a thesis, but if you answer either “Yes, it is,” or, more challenging to prove, “No, it isn’t,” you have a thesis. If you’re dealing with a controversial topic in which you’re trying to bring the opposing side to your point of view, you may leave the question unanswered at first and bring the reader to your answer by the end of the essay – but at some point you are going to have to answer the question and answer it clearly.

So having a good thesis is crucial to having a good essay. The second part of writing a good essay is proving that thesis.

This is where you start thinking like a lawyer. You’re Jack McCoy, and you’re presenting evidence to the jury to prove your case. (Yeah, I know, McCoy’s now the boss, so he’s not in the courtroom any more, but maybe you’re an assistant DA on his staff.) A good lawyer doesn’t say, “I just know John Doe shot Joe Blow, so there,” and then sit down. A good lawyer will present supporting evidence, such as ballistics reports that show the bullet found in Joe Blow’s body matches John Doe’s gun, and witnesses who saw the two men arguing just before the shots rang out, and so on and so forth. And the defense lawyer is going to present other evidence to try to prove that Doe didn’t shoot Blow, and you’ll have to counter that evidence.

When you’re writing your essay, you have to provide the same sort of supporting evidence that is needed in a criminal trial. And you have to anticipate what the opposition is likely to say, and refute that point of view. You want to present solid evidence, and you want to explain it thoroughly, and you want to make sure that the evidence that you present counters the evidence that the other side presents.

This even goes to the structure of the essay. In a trial, the lawyers start by explaining what they’re going to prove and how they’re planning to prove it. Then they go through all of the evidence, the witnesses, the expert testimony, and all of that stuff. Then, at the end of the trial, they sum everything up for the jury, to remind the jury of all of the testimony and evidence that has been presented – and they try to end on a note that resounds with the jury. That’s just the same as the introduction, body, and conclusion of an essay.

So when you’re writing an essay, stop thinking of yourself as writing something nice to please your instructor. Think of yourself as a lawyer proving your case. Give me solid evidence that’s going to make an impact on the jury.

The big difference, if you’re writing an essay, is that you may not be dealing with life-or-death or earth-shaking issues. “Pickup trucks are not just for cowboys any more”: Present evidence to show that these versatile vehicles are great for housewives taking large dogs to the vet, and for teenagers and young adults who give them spiffy paint jobs and lots of chrome and cruise up and down Montgomery every Friday and Saturday night. “Setting up a salt-water aquarium is a fun and rewarding hobby”: Give lots of evidence to show how much you have enjoyed setting up your own aquarium.

So that’s the key to writing an essay – have a point to prove, and provide evidence to prove it.

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Anonymous tillerman said...

Good point. Do you think that all of the above also applies to writing a good blog post? Or just some of those guidelines?

Tue Jul 08, 04:25:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

I think much of this does apply to blog posts, although a blog post doesn't necessarily have to have as formal a thesis. For example, some posts may consist of no words at all, just a picture, but the picture can make a point just the same.

Tue Jul 08, 07:57:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Pat said...

A blog post also has more freedom because it doesn't have to be about debating, proving, or disproving a thesis.

A blog post can be very simply informative. ("This picture shows how very blue the sky and water are at Heron Lake this weekend"; or The New Mexico Sailing Club is hosting a potluck dinner after this weekend's regatta".)

It might be a personal narrative, in which no point need be stated; the narration or description simply stands on its own. And, if narrative, the post could take many forms or follow the conventions of many different genres.

Tue Jul 08, 09:56:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Ah, but even those sorts of blog posts have something of a thesis: "The weather was great this weekend." "We'd like to see a lot of people at the potluck."

Pure narrative without a point generally doesn't make a good blog post -- I don't want to read about what somebody did all day, starting with getting out of bed and eating breakfast, unless there's some underlying point being made. It might be very subtle, but it has to be there in order for the blog post to be worth reading.

I suppose, for example, I could point to my own blog, in which I tell stories of things that happen. There's always some underlying idea I want to convey, even if I don't state it.

I don't require that my students have explicitly stated theses in their essays, either, but I do require that they have an underlying point they want to make, something that goes beyond just wanting to tell about something that happened to them. I want them to relate their own observations and experiences to a mythological "universal reader" who isn't interested so much in the student's day-to-day life, but who is interested in how the student's outlook relates to life, the universe, and everything.

And that's the same sort of thing that makes a good blog post.

Now, that gives me an idea ... cast my students in the role of bloggers, who will need to meet another requirement of good essay writing -- attracting and keeping the attention of readers ...

Wed Jul 09, 01:30:00 AM MDT  
Anonymous tillerman said...

I totally agree Carol Anne. I hate those blog posts that just ramble on about everything that happened in someone's day. When I write a post I try to have a clear single point even if it's only, "I'm a terrible sailor." I don't always succeed but I do try.

Wed Jul 09, 06:06:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Tillerman, you succeed better than you know. Otherwise, why would I now be the owner/skipper of a racing sailboat? Why would I even have gotten into racing in the first place?

(Programming note: the 38K visitor was from South Carolina, on the usual search.)

Thu Jul 10, 02:41:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Pat said...

Of course, if the thesis is unstated and subtle, then most of the work of interpreting and constructing a thesis may have to be done by the reader -- and, depending upon just how doggone subtle the thesis is (and how hard a reader or the reader's subconscious is willing to work), readers might find several different theses.

So, a reader's response to a typical post of mine might be anything from, "Heron Lake is natural and unspoiled," to "sailing at Heron Lake is fun" to "sailing at Heron Lake is challenging" to "weather at Heron Lake is unpredictable" to "Heron Lake would be a great place to have a Laser regatta."

Naturally I'd become entirely shocked and awed if a reader named Martin Luther were to derive 97 theses from one of my blog posts and nail them to the marina bulletin board. That could even reform my bad sailing habits.

Sat Jul 12, 02:23:00 AM MDT  

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